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Basketball

What We Saw, What It Felt Like: Mavs-Clippers Game 2

A gritty game draws Dallas even in the series.
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Luka Doncic finished the Clippers off in Game 2. Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are complicated. Each series is its own story, and each game is its own chapter encompassing a dozen moments and plot points. But the playoffs can also be simple. Each of those moments, those plot points, falls into one of two buckets: the things we observe and the emotions they inspire within us. That’s what we’re here to talk about.

What We Saw

This was a different type of playoff game, a Game 2 with a Game 7 vibe. You don’t see that often, so strictly focusing on key plays and adjustments would sell this win short. Instead, I’ll lean into what our intros says about each series being its own story and share two tales of my own that inform what we saw last night.

The first one starts with one of the most passionate Mavs fans out there. I write postgame recaps after every game on Twitter/X, and every time I mentioned Jason Kidd experimenting with smaller lineups featuring Maxi Kleber and P.J. Washington after the trade deadline, I would receive the same reply: “Iztok, the Mavs need to play big to impose their will.” And he was not the only one. Our editor, Mike “The Looch” Piellucci, is a big believer in staying big. Some even viewed playing small(er) as a display of weakness. Personally, ever since the Mavericks traded for Washington, I envisioned him and Kleber playing crucial roles in key moments of a playoff game as two switchable bigs who can space the floor. This is especially true against a team like the Clippers, who are built to drag you into a bloodbath, into one-on-one bravados where gaining even an inch of space is crucial. Non-shooting bigs rarely help with that in the postseason, which made last night something of a redemption: for Washington, for Kidd’s decision to lean into small ball, and especially for Kleber, who has been much maligned by the fan base.

The second story is about defense. A few years ago, I watched a coaching clinic on switching defense led by Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Before delving into the nuances and tactics of complex switching schemes, Spoelstra emphasized one point: if you are a player consistently called upon to defend the switch, you must ask yourself why. Then you must work your butt off until the opponent stops. Teams have been hunting Luka Dončić like that ever since he entered the NBA. During the 2022 playoffs, the Phoenix Suns tried to embarrass him until he fought back. The Clippers attempted the same tactic, going at Dončić by targeting him on switches from the first possession. During the key moments of the fourth quarter, future Hall of Famers James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George tried to expose Dončić, attacking him on every possession in waves. But Dončić held his own, earning several stops that made the Clippers throw up their hands. Eventually George decided he’d have an easier time scoring on All-NBA defense candidate Derrick Jones Jr., of all people. 

Consider last night was also a moment of redemption for Dončić, further cementing his status as the best player in the series. It was a very good sign and potentially a crucial development in what could be an extremely competitive series that goes the distance. —Iztok Franko

What It Felt Like

They got the game they wanted.

It still feels odd to accept that these Mavericks do their best work covered in sweat and grime. Rarely has that been the DNA of this franchise historically. Rarer still was it for this year’s edition prior to late February, when a pair of deadline acquisitions, along with a subsequent rejiggering of NBA officiating, reinvented the way Dallas operates. The Mavericks have been the best defensive team in basketball since Daniel Gafford was inserted into the starting lineup on March 7, a moving fortress in the paint, and that evolution has been so seamless that you’d be forgiven for presuming the roster was born into this style of ball rather than recent adapters of it. 

So idyllic as it seems to imagine seven games of riding Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving and throwing caution to the wind, Dallas is far better suited for nights like Tuesday. 

This was rough and tumble and rugged. Each bucket felt urgent and hard-earned, fresh loaves of bread in lean times. The game-sealing 14-0 run in the fourth, punctuated by threes from Dončić and Irving? May as well have been 40-0, given the stakes and the flow.  

The win came with attrition—Gafford’s back, Tim Hardaway’s ankle, and for a brief moment in the first half, apparently Dončić’s lower leg, too. But it was also packed with fortitude. Dončić commanded the stage on both ends of the floor, the way an MVP frontrunner should. Irving paired a more subdued game on offense with his most frenzied defensive effort all year. Washington followed up a functional Game 1 with an indispensable Game 2, bailing the Mavs out time and again as an outlet in the corner. Kleber, too often timid from beyond the arc in Game 1, shot just enough to keep the Clippers honest and made two critical threes along the way, to say nothing of the game-best +9 as Kidd’s preferred center down the stretch. Jones and Josh Green leveraged superior athleticism to attack closeouts like thirsty patrons at last call. 

It is borderline exhausting to imagine the Mavs scaring up three more wins like this one, as much for the outcome as everything that will be required to achieve it. Surely something, anything, must get easier after 96 minutes of punishment in Los Angeles. Thing is, exhausting might just be the way this group likes it. —Mike Piellucci

Authors

Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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